LONDON - The families of three British schoolgirls feared to be travelling to join the Islamic State (IS) group in Syria issued emotional appeals for them to come home.

Close friends Kadiza Sultana, 17, and 15-year-olds Shamima Begum and Amira Abase left their east London homes Tuesday and flew to Istanbul. Turkey is a key entry point for those seeking to travel to Syria.

Police believe the three girls - all of whom are academic high achievers - were following the example of a friend who fled to join IS jihadists in December. British media reported that the girls had been interviewed by police about where their friend had gone but were not considered at risk of leaving the country themselves.

Abase’s family agreed that she could be identified for the first time Saturday in the hope of securing her safe return. ‘You are strong, smart, beautiful and we are hoping you will make the right decision,’ they said in a statement issued by police. ‘Please return home.’ Sultana’s family described how they were feeling ‘completely distressed’ and that her departure had been ‘a complete nightmare’.

‘We miss you terribly, especially Mum, and things have not been the same without you,’ they said. Begum’s family added that Syria was ‘a dangerous place and we don’t want you to go there’. ‘We understand that you have strong feelings and want to help those you believe are suffering in Syria,’ the family said. ‘You can help from home, you don’t have to put yourself in danger.’ The girls flew to Istanbul on a Turkish Airlines flight from London’s Gatwick airport. Counter-terrorism experts estimate that around 50 women have travelled from Britain to Syria to join the IS group, which has captured swathes of territory in Iraq and Syria. Before this, British police launched an appeal on Friday to trace three London schoolgirls who are believed to be making their way to Syria, having flown to Turkey earlier this week.

The three friends, two aged 15 and one 16, left their east London homes on Tuesday and travelled to Gatwick airport where they caught a Turkish Airlines flight to Istanbul without telling their families. Police said they were working with Turkish authorities to try to find the girls and bring them home.

‘We still think there’s a possibility they’re in Turkey and that’s why we’re having the appeal,’ Richard Walton from London police’s counter terrorism command told reporters on Friday. Turkish Airlines declined to say whether the girls had travelled on one of its flights. A spokesman for the airline said in an emailed statement that apart from checking visas the company was not responsible for dealing with pre-flight security issues.

The three girls, two of whom were named as British nationals Shamima Begum and Kadiza Sultana, were pupils at the Bethnal Green Academy. They are friends with a fourth teenage girl from the same school who police believe is already in Syria, having travelled to Turkey in December. Their families were surprised and devastated by the disappearance of the girls, Walton said. Security forces estimate some 600 British Muslims have travelled to Syria to join the conflict there, some of them with the militant Sunni Islamist group Islamic State. Around half have since returned, and dozens have been arrested in Britain under anti-terrorism legislation.